Almost twenty years before they became international stars thanks to Game of Thrones, The Killing and The Bridge, Danes Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister in GoT), Sofie Gråbol (The Killing) and Kim Bodnia (The Bridge) all starred in this low-budget horror from director Ole Borendal. As well as promising an early glimpse into the careers of this trio, the DVD re-release also positions Nightwatch as a precursor to both Saw and Se7en, two of the more prominent horror/thriller films of recent times. Is Nightwatch really where the modern horror-thriller began?
Coster-Waldau is Martin Bork, a law student who, wanting a peaceful place to study and earn some money, takes a job as a night watchman at a local morgue; a job made more interesting when a maniac starts scalping prostitutes and Martin becomes dragged into the police investigation.
Bork’s first tour of the morgue does a lot of setting up for later: the room he can never go in, the room without a handle on the inside, the faulty alarm, talk of an old scandal; and similarly Nightwatch establishes its small central cast early too, ensuring a very contained piece that could almost be a play – although it does mean that a lot of the character’s actions feel strangely isolated. For instance the lead Police investigator (Pilgaard) seems to operate independently of any other officer or station or of any orders or schedule.
It’s clear that one of the main characters is the real killer and when the reveal does come it is played out for a tense and thrilling finale, even if it doesn’t actually make a lot of sense, again working to isolate the events and characters of Nightwatch from any kind of real ‘outside’ world.
Bornedal keeps the visuals dark and mostly in close-up to set the tone and as a tool for mounting tension and maintaining an impressive level of atmosphere, while the soundtrack pays homage to the music from Psycho’s classic shower-scene. The horror is actually here rather than in terms of graphic material, excess blood or in sudden shocks.
The performances are good but perhaps don’t give an indicator as to how far the lead trio’s careers would take them. Bodnia gets the best of it but only because the script allows him alone to cut loose as Bork’s reckless, hedonistic, self-indulgent friend Jens. Coster-Waldau’s role is quite straight-cut – if slightly egotistical – though he has a natural presence and makes every action his character takes genuinely believable, while Gråbol doesn’t get chance to do much other than be the typical girlfriend of a character in a horror film. At least she keeps her head and a sense of adventure and doesn’t scream – much.
There is a lot of extra padding regarding Martin’s and Jens’ series of increasingly wild challenges and Jen’s fractious relationship to a barely seen girlfriend (Andersen). It establishes character, sure, but it pads too much and all begs the question as to why Martin hangs around with him in the first place. The script also makes too many knowing references to the the fact that it is a movie; with characters asking if they realise how the events feel like a bad Hollywood thriller and at one point Bork actually comes up with the film title for “if all of this was real.”
Nightwatch isn’t as gruesome as Saw or as original as Se7en and apart from the dark visuals and the morgue setting, there isn’t much ‘horror’ to set it apart from a thriller. However, it is genuinely atmospheric, tense and well shot. An impressive early milestone in the star casts’ careers.